The great genre debate: The influence others have on Street Photography
This was a topic that I started to write in Thailand, but my broken tablet screen put a halt to the blog productivity. This was actually a real shame, as while it was raining there (it rained a lot) I was really enjoying just sitting on the balcony of the villa we were in and writing. I found it relaxing, and quite honestly I couldnt have thought of a nicer way to spend some time while away on a break.
I am now back in Australia and back at real work, so time for writing is not as abundant. I spend the whole day in front of a computer at work, I am a business analyst, and although most of my time is spent in Excel working numbers and analysing data, to come home and spend more time in front of the screen is sometimes a little hard. There is also the fact that as much as I like writing these small bits and bobs, sharing with anyone who might happen across them in the wide work of the intertubes, I am still a photographer, and I still want to make photos. This also takes time, and there is sometimes just not enough hours in a day.
So I am home today from work. I started playing inline hockey again and my legs are now broken to the extent that I cant walk down the stairs in my house very well. The computer is upstairs so this seems like a logical time to spend a little time finishing the topic that I started to think about while I was away.
That was a really long lead in, and was also totally off topic, but I know that when I read others blogs I like to know a little about them, and what drives them to write and share. Some do it as they have a massive following and they are able to actually make a living from it. Running workshops and the like. And advertising on their site. I dont think that I have any aspirations to be in that space. Others still do it as they have ideas that spring into their heads and they need to get them out. I fall squarely into Box B. Its the same with my photography. I think of images and then have a need to get them out, no matter what the genre. I have a very long list of things that I would like to get out of my Evernote list of Photo Ideas (some issue with not enough hours in a day, and some of them require models as well, and I havent sat and thought about how to find some of these either). The Street stuff is a little easier in a way. Its less time consuming in many ways, and can be done pretty much anywhere. Studio work isnt something that I have had the time to return to since finding the camera again, but it will happen. I have a similar list in Evernote for Blog Ideas. When I think of something that I would like to do a little research on and then spin my flavour to it, I put a little note in there on my phone or tablet (I have a new one now), and then when I have a little time I sit, think, and generally just write the words that come to me head. Thats likely why I tend to ramble a lot.
Photographic genres; this whole street photography boom that is going on at the moment is a little all encompassing for some that are involved, and at times I think that people lose a little perspective on what else is out there that can be used for both inspiration and learning. When I started to think about this I did a little research and came up with the image at the head of the post, and there is also a second image from the same site.
And you know what, these maps are a very interesting way of displaying the different genres and where they sit in relation to each other, and to some broader groupings as well. On the image at the head of the post we have the Editorial, or Non-Fiction side of the tree, and then in the image above we have the Creative, or Fiction side of the tree. I think that adding the well known literary genres of Fiction and Non-Fiction is a very helpful tool in trying to generate an understanding of where different work sits in the structure.
I want to make two very important points here as well.
- These lists on the tree are likely not exhaustive, there might be more, so I am happy if you want to chime in with some suggestions. The lists are also probably blurred in some sections if you get what I mean. And due to this some judgement might be possible, and there is likely some crossover if trying to place a single image or single series in a single heading.
- It doesnt matter where in this tree the work that you like to do sits. It doesnt even matter if you break some of the rules in the genre that you choose to apply yourself to either. It also doesnt even matter if you dont care about what genre youre working in. As long as youre passionate about what youre doing, and as long as you understand that no matter what genre youre working in, the basic rules of photography and artistic composition still hold true in most cases.
I have mentioned in passing in a previous post that you should try and buy books not gear. And there are also a whole heap of others that will back me up on this point as well (Read this from Eric Kim, it sums it up well). This is where this discussion topic likely came to me. I own a few books, not a lot though, and they are something that I would like to continue to buy as money permits, and honestly, I would like to think that with the current cameras that I am lucky to own, I dont need to spend money on buying gear. Im not good enough at the moment to do the current gear that I use justice, and need to keep that firmly in my mind before jumping onto eBay anytime soon.
I have recently taken reference to being a Street Photographer off my website and Twitter details. I am just a photographer, but I would like to speak to some of the Street die hards in trying to encourage them to diversify and learn from other genres of photography. If you shoot in urban areas, how is it that its not a good thing for you to gain an understanding of how to compose a good Urban Architecture image if you are shooting street in the same locations. Even though you dont have control over the subjects in your street work as you would in a studio, how is it not a good thing to have the understanding of subject placement and positioning that comes with spending some time shooting studio portraits or nudes... And I think that the most important one of all is to spend some time with your cameras in settings where you are not rushed and always fighting the passing of time and trying to capture that defining moment. Its during these periods of peace and tranquility that you have the time to reflect and learn and really let the knowledge sink in, so that its available and ready to use when the time presents itself.
In a recent video post John Free discussed the aspect of training to use your camera. Like an athlete running drills, or a chef practicing their cooking skills, we as image makers should spend some time doing the same thing. Practicing... Sometimes its good to place yourself outside of your comfort zone when doing this. Force yourself to do something that you wouldnt normally have to. This is when you will find that new setting in the camera. You will set the speed and ISO setting to something that you previously hadnt needed to use, you will like the result and you will be provided with the opportunity to replicate this in the future.
In the header image with the Non-Fiction side of the genre map we can see that what the author is terming Candid Street Photography sits in the Life branch, and is listed as a form of Documentary photography. I tent to agree with this general placement, but it does raise what for me is an integral point in any attempt to define Street Photography. The point is that the genre is placed on the Non-Fiction side of the mapping. This is Editorial work that we are undertaking, and its also poignant for me that its sitting under the High Level Heading of Life. I have made statements on peoples images on the APF Street Facebook group in the past when there is a lot of post work done on an image, where the image is doctored, or there is something that has been clearly photoshopped into the file. My comments have gone something along the lines of this:
For me, Street Photography is about displaying the reality of the world around you. When there is excessive post work of any kind applied to the image this distracts from the reality of the situation and hence the strength of the story displayed by the image suffers...
I stand by this statement, and for me its about the only statement that I will make in trying to define Street. Street is about the real things that happen around you on a daily basis, these things can seem mundane and normal to you, but are the basis of the interesting and outlandish for others at times.
I have talked in the past about how I came to photography. It was through high school studies, and in these studies a majority of the work that I completed was done in the controlled environment of the studio. I had control over everything from the lighting to the placement of the subject. I had control and I had the luxury of time to make compositional decisions. I had the luxury of time before the shoot to carefully map and plan the image. This is a luxury that we are seldom provided with in the street when shooting candid moments. But as I have mentioned above, its during this time that I learnt a lot about camera settings and how they would impact the end results of my image. I now have some more studio ideas that are in the Evernote list that I mentioned, just waiting to come out and be defined through the lens, and they are strong ideas. Some of them even influenced by some scenes that I have seen on the street. Some of them influenced by the ethical and moral views that I have started to develop recently about the world. Ideas that as I mature have a direct impact on the decisions that I make on a daily basis. These are things that drive passion, and passion in images is something that is sometimes lacking.
So most of the work that I undertook in High School would be classified as Fine Art in some way shape or form. In this area, composition and rules are probably more important than in any other. But its these rules and compositional qualities that were replicated by the masters of the Street Photography movement. I hate to write his name as its raised too often, but its a classic example. Cartier-Bresson was a master of composition, and by all means there were times when some would argue that he took some freedom in manipulating the scenes, but I dont think that this really matters for me, it was still a portrayal of reality. But where did he get these compositional skills from? Sure they were honed and developed in part through the camera lens, but he was also a painter. So he diversified. Developing skills in not only different genres, but also different mediums.
So my point is this. Study art. Dont only study Street Photography. Study other forms of photography as well as other mediums of art as well. Many of the rules applied to these other genres and mediums are the same, and therefore lessons learnt from viewing a wide and varied mix of work are invaluable. Buy art books, both pictorial as well as instructional. Study them and learn about what the artists did, and be critical and think about why they made the decisions about subject matter, subject placement, and composition.
Go to galleries and see exhibitions. See work by the masters of all art forms. I recently went to a exhibition of Steichen's work that is on at National Gallery of Victoria.
He wasnt really a street photographer, though he did complete a massive body of work in documenting the second world war. The work that is on display at the NGV at the moment though is from his years working at Vanity Fair and Vogue in the 1920's and 30's. Its the start of fashion photography as wel know it today, and was driven by the Art Deco and Modernist movements of the period. The portraiture is amazing, and his camera and lighting skills are clearly evident. I really enjoyed the tones and contrast that he achieved in a lot of his images.
I also attended a show by a local Melbourne Street artist by the name of Miso.
This was not an photographic show, but was a series of pin prick works. The level of detail in the works was amazing. Street art is something that I have been spending a little more time thinking about as well of late. I am running out of space, and likely running out of your attention span as well, so I might save this as a sub topic for another post... But I will leave you with a question. Are the goals and motives of a Street Photographer and a Street Artist similar or different? And no matter what you think the answer to that question is, what do you think that you would be able to learn from studying the work of some great Street Artists that you would be able to apply to your photographic works?